A tale of two Union Stations

This week, plans were announced to make what the Chicago Tribune called “enhancements” to Chicago’s Union Station.

Rethinking Union Station is a good thing (for reasons I’ll unpack in a minute), but it’s also made me think about another Union Station.

Denver just reopened its Union Station after a substantial renovation. The site, which has been an Amtrak station for years, was redesigned to be several things in addition to an Amtrak station. It’s now a larger hub for many of Denver’s transit lines, both rail and bus.

It’s also been designed to be a meeting place for people. When my partner and I visited Denver a few weeks ago, we stayed at that hotel (The Crawford).

Denver's Union Station before its recent remodel. (Internet photo)

Denver’s Union Station before its recent remodel. (Internet photo)

The new Union Station featured a wide array of restaurants, cafes and stores. A few coffeehouses, a bookstore and a great breakfast spot were among the choices. It was great to have those choices at a hotel (versus the usual drab hotel fare), but it’s all adds to the larger idea that this is a gathering spot – a public space that’s filled with activity.

The furniture in the station lobby reflected that – some tables and chairs, some sofas, a few benches, even a shuffleboard. And still plenty of room for the official Amtrak waiting area at one end of the station.

And the fountain on the outside of the station, where so many people were eating al fresco, also underscored that element.

Adjacent to the station itself was access to several transit lines and hundreds of buses, all through a weather-protected transit station. The rail lines sit above ground while buses arrive and depart through a long series of gates below ground. Despite the underground factor, the station was filled with light, clean, and well-organized (no clusters of traffic).

My partner and I took a bus from that spot to return to the airport. It was easy and convenient — and a third of the price of the cab we took from the airport to the hotel. And even that will be made simpler in a year or so, when a new transit line from the station to the airport opens.

Of course, Denver is building its light rail capacities and starting from square one in some of these areas, so it’s much easier to plan (and plan well) from the start. Chicago’s Union Station has been a victim of the years, of different plans and different ideas that don’t play well together.

Both the Amtrak and Metra areas are in long corridors that can become human sardine cans if trains are late or cancelled. There’s no flow to either area — Amtrak’s main gate area, waiting rooms and ticket area is, in particular, an odd series of segmented boxes with no rhyme or reason).

On the other side of the spectrum, there’s a huge great room of wasted space. It’s ostensibly a waiting room, but it seems to be wasted. (It’s also often rented for entertainment and events – a lovely idea, but something that shouldn’t be a main driving force of a space like the station.)

And that’s just in the station itself. One of the biggest headaches about Chicago’s Union Station is how to get there, and how people flow around the building above ground.

The new Denver station. Amtrak waiting area is out of frame on the left; the remaining spaces are retail spaces and central social areas in the middle. (Internet photo)

The new Denver station. Amtrak waiting area is out of frame on the left; the remaining spaces are retail spaces and central social areas in the middle. (Internet photo)

The entrances may be familiar for people who take the Metra every day, but there is no real “front door” of the station.

Car traffic clutters the streets around the station, often blocking intersections, and the Megabus stop a block away has added to that confusion.

While two transit lines (the CTA Blue and Green Clinton stops) are not far away, there’s no clear sign, markings or pathway on how to connect between the station and the CTA stops.

So what can Chicago do? It may not be able to start from scratch and really rethink the entire station (or can it?) but a few ideas might help:

(1) Outside, plans should designate a few streets around the station to be buses and cabs only. (One is now, but it’s poorly enforced.) Nabbing a space to create a car passenger drop off area – complete with actual space to pull off of the street – would be ideal. This space could be combined with the curb where Megabus stops, so that traffic flows more sensibly. Mark all of those things very clearly, so drivers understand where to go.

(2) Develop a more clear marking system at entrances for what sits where, and what can be accessed from that entrance. As it stands now, it appears that Amtrak and Metra have put up signs of their own in haphazard places. A general Union Station signage plan should mark entrances, the services inside, and other things (like ATMs, ticketing services, and so on).

(3) Think of a better use for the great room area. How can this be used to alleviate crowding? Are the retail outlets currently in Union Station a good mix, or can they be updated?

The Tribune article talks about some aspects of these ideas, mainly about CTA buses around the station. That’s a great start, but Megabus is a part of the everyday experience at the station, and ignoring the cut-rate bus company won’t help with crowding.

The same article suggests no change to the great room, which I think is unfortunate. Perhaps they should fly to Denver and see that Union Station’s great room – a room full of people talking, laughing, eating, a room full of life. Chicago’s great room may have historical value, but it only vaguely flickers with the kind of life that a public space like this should host on a daily basis.

Even Amtrak's own media person calls the station "warren of obscure passageways with no natural light." (Internet photo)

Even Amtrak’s own media person calls the station “warren of obscure passageways with no natural light.” (Internet photo)

The worst urban studies student ever……

My freshly minted college degree includes a concentration in urban studies.

While I have no plans at the moment to become an urban planner, I’ve always felt that many of urban studies’ core ideas — about the ways we live and the demographic groups that define us — were deeply relevant for the 21st century and are applicable to just about every industry and every part of our country.  I found that it encompassed many of the things I’d been writing about for years, the changes in how we live and work.

In my personal life, I’d been doing a lot of things we’d discussed in class. I have never owned a car and, perhaps more shockingly, have never held a license to drive. I’ve walked or taken public transportation for most of my life, and I always lived in the core of a city, so I could have an existence that allowed for walking and mass transit.

Three years ago, my partner and I bought a home in the middle of a neighborhood close to Chicago’s Loop.

Our neighborhood (the West Loop) has growing density, a great walkability score, access to multiple channels of mass transit, two parks within a few blocks, and more restaurants and nightclubs than I can count.

Yes, it's true: The crane is the official bird of the West Loop. (Internet photo)

Yes, it’s true: The crane is the official bird of the West Loop. (Internet photo)

There’s only one thing: I’m really unhappy living here.

Some of the things that I’ve always endorsed? Are driving me crazy.

I am the worst urban studies student EVER.

The biggest negative impact for me has been noise pollution. While we live in a nice building, literally every flat space surrounding us has been under construction for three years. THREE. YEARS. That’s three years of not being able to sleep past 6 a.m., of constant drilling and hammering and bulldozers and cranes.

A new company has moved into a neighboring commercial building (formerly part of Harpo Studios), and promptly installed a motion alarm on their parking gate that I am pretty sure can be heard in Aurora. Possibly in space.

Indeed, our neighborhood is BOOMING. Google’s Chicago headquarters are moving just a few blocks north. A hotel is opening just east of us, and many of the small, nondescript factory spaces dotting the West Loop are being snapped up by developers. A company called Sterling Bay has, to a large degree, bought the West Loop and is now developing its use.

Of course, beyond the noise, which feels as if it will never end, many of the issues that are emerging show the wisdom of good urban planning and the repercussions that happen when it’s absent. It’s nearly impossible to cross Madison Street now with the boom in traffic, and lack of pedestrian crosswalks near us.

Parking has become a huge issue. The West Loop, like the South Loop and Andersonville, desperately needs a dedicated parking area. Instead, patrons who think nothing of spending $200 at a Restaurant Row eatery or at a Blackhawks game will insist on parking for free on one of our streets. (With car alarms set to stun; the West Loop is a symphony of sounding car alarms every day.)

Parking in the city is its own nightmare (Google Chicago parking meter deal)  but I’ve never understood why parking doesn’t come *before* or *as part of* planning here. There’s a huge, hulking half-built building at the west end of the West Loop that would be perfect to retrofit into a neighborhood park house, with shuttles running up and down Randolph.

Residential development has been the main part of the boom thus far, but as commercial development continues, a conflict is emerging between the two camps. I haven’t seen any movement to define patches of the West Loop as solely residential or commercial. We’ll have two rooftop bars opening soon near us – far closer to residences than they should be.

The other main irritant hits a little closer to home.

In my mind, I always thought that living in close quarters with your neighbors would lead to that kind of engaged community, where neighbors became friends, where people socialized and looked after one another.

A few homeowner’s association meetings have disabused me of that notion.

With precious few exceptions, our neighbors create more drama than Downton Abbey, and are guilty of more metaphorical backstabbing and bloodshed than Game of Thrones. It’s a toxic batch of entitlement and manipulation. (While we’re on the pop culture references, the most entitled and manipulative ones bring to mind Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.)

There’s still much to be said for sustainable urban living, and I haven’t changed my stance on those ideas, those policies.

I think it might just be that we’re outgrowing this place. This neighborhood is becoming a huge cluster for clubs and nightlife, and will be a fast-paced hub for twentysomethings. My twenties are a bit in the rearview mirror for me, though.

My partner and I want something quieter and calmer for our next home, and will likely move out of Chicago to find it. But I think we’ll be sticking with urban settings, or the “cosmoburb,” where access to walking paths, bike paths and mass transit still exist.

Of course, I also know that I’m ridiculously lucky. Lucky to have a home, lucky to have a choice to leave a place that isn’t a good match.

We’re in Chicago, where bad planning and years of discriminatory zoning and lending policies have created neighborhoods where basic life, liberty and safety are harrowingly hard to come by. Lots of people don’t have the choices we do to change neighborhoods, or to move at all.

Rahm Emanuel has followed in the footsteps of the Daleys, enacting or sustaining policies that stand in the way of evolution or change for disadvantaged neighborhoods. 2014 feels a lot like 1974 in some of these neighborhoods. It feels impossible to effect change here.

Hopefully, our next home will be in a place where we can take advantage of good planning and great living space — but also contribute to our community, where we can become advocates for everyone who lives there.

I’m going to brainstorm about this right now! You might not be able to hear me, though, with the noise in the background…….


Harpo, Oprah and the West Loop

It’s been a year and a half since Oprah Winfrey’s daily talk show ended.

I’m sure many viewers miss the show, but for viewers, the main impact is that the show no longer beams into their living rooms. Fans of Winfrey’s work still have her brand new network (OWN) where they can get their Oprah fix.

From this back in the day…..

I’m seeing a few more tangible repercussions of the end of Winfrey’s show up close. Why? Well, I live a stone’s throw from Harpo Studios here in Chicago.

And those studios? They’re virtually empty, and that worries me.

There’s been almost no activity there, save for the period when Rosie O’Donnell’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it talk show was in production there for five months. Hundreds of former Harpo staffers have been laid off.

Listen, businesses change and grow and relocate and are born and die all the time. I get it. And to be very clear: I do not have a chip on my shoulder about Oprah. I like her. I have some mixed feelings about how her show evolved over the years, but it had some great moments and affected a lot of people in very positive ways. I watched many episodes of Oprah and have no shame in my game about doing so.

This isn’t about her. It’s all about my ‘hood, you see.

When my partner and I first moved to the West Loop (a few blocks away) we were renters. Now we are homeowners. We’re invested in our home, our street and our neighborhood.

This sign was up for about a minute last year.

The fact that one of our neighbors’ homes, so to speak, is primarily a big empty shell is cause for concern, if not alarm.

It’s not just the actual Harpo Studios building, which used to be an armory and takes up a whole city block with Washington on its south, Aberdeen to its west, Randolph to its north and Carpenter at its east. There are also other buildings adjacent to the studio that are used by Harpo – I can count at least three other buildings in the same vicinity where Harpo staffers are located.

I hope Harpo has a long, sustainable life, but if it folds – or moves completely to California, where Winfrey herself is headquartered – that’s a huge chunk of our neighborhood to lose what was a solid economic engine.

Oprah’s arrival is often heralded as the beginning of the renaissance for the West Loop, but the neighborhood would probably survive a drastic change if Harpo leaves. Restaurant Row is a bustling thoroughfare, with restaurants by Stephanie Izard and Graham Elliot Bowles dotting the Randolph Street landscape. And in just the last few years, the Fulton Market neighborhood has exploded.

Farewell, Le Peep – directly affected by the loss of Harpo employees

But it’s foolish to think there will be no impact. Already Washington Avenue east of the studio has seen several businesses (including Le Peep) close due to the loss of Harpo-related business. I’ve seen a small spike in vandalism in those blocks, and it’s hard to tell at this point whether that’s just a summer-related spike or a more long term effect, but it’s troubling.

More puzzling is why Harpo hasn’t actively marketed the space as a usable, turnkey-ready studio space. I posted about the possibilities of this space for a film or TV show recently.

Steve Harvey’s new talk show was announced, but instead of using the Harpo space, a huge new studio has been built for him. I can understand a talk show host not wanting to follow in Winfrey’s shadow, but there’s been radio silence as to whether any other productions might use the space.

Winfrey is known for holding her cards close to her vest and limiting information about her plans (three words: employee non-disclosure agreement), but I wish that she or her team would take a moment to sit down with residents and tell us what their plans are. Or if they have any long term plans at ALL for the space.

I’m a good neighbor – I’ll come by and pay a courtesy call. (A tour of the studio would be nice, but I won’t be greedy.)

Lights, camera, action: where we make media

A few weeks ago, the Urbanophile – one of my favorite blogs and one that covers urban studies, cities and economics – featured a guest post that discussed Manchester, England and some of the changes to the city’s economy after the steel industry and other manufacturing collapsed.

It’s worth a complete read (linked above) but let me give you the Cliff Notes version: Manchester developed some sustainable alternate industries in the arts and entertainment sector, including music, film and television production.

Manchester, in many ways, is very similar to Pittsburgh, my hometown.

Pittsburgh has been active to a certain degree in film. The Pittsburgh Film Office has been working with Hollywood productions for over twenty years, and they’ve managed to attract really amazing films to be partly or completely shot in the ‘Burgh.

The latest Batman film, The Dark Knight Rises, may be the largest in scope, but it’s not the only one: films as varied as Silence Of The Lambs, Wonder Boys, and Abduction have been filmed in Pittsburgh. (The movie I Am Number Four was filmed at my old high school.)

Pittsburgh has a lot of amazing vistas and a diversity of scenery in its neighborhoods that makes it an ideal place to film.

But hosting a film for a few weeks is different than having a dedicated film or television studio where ongoing work can be done.

For a few years, I wrote a blog about daytime soap operas. Initially, it was an analysis of the content of those shows. But I found myself also writing a great deal about the economics of making those shows. They’d become expensive to produce. Set storage alone in an intensely dense space like Manhattan was a massive strain on production budgets.

One show in particular, the now-cancelled Guiding Light, had a very public battle with economics that showed on air. In order to reduce production costs, the show’s executive producer and production company tried some inventive ideas, including filming on permanent sets, renting a large house in rural New Jersey for filming, and switching to digital cameras.

One thought struck me then, and it’s just as true of any TV show (or film) as it is for a soap opera. If New York City and Los Angeles are the two more expensive places in the country – for real estate, for cost of living, for everything – then why are we almost exclusively producing entertainment there? 

I can understand the pluses of Southern California weather, and the cluster of Broadway talent in New York City. But it seems like a no-brainer to me to diversify – significantly – where we produce entertainment so it can be done in a more cost-effective way.

We aren’t using coaxial cable to relay TV programs any more, folks. Digital cameras can go anywhere, be anywhere and film anything at any time.

Where else should shows be made? Well, there’s probably a lot of places that a sustainable industry could take root.

Take Chicago, my current city. There’s a host of talented actors here, enough to fill several shows. (Heck, the members of Steppenwolf alone are hardly strangers – John Malkovich, Terry Kinney, and Laurie Metcalf – also known as Jackie from Roseanne – just to name a few.)

There’s a studio sitting empty here – perhaps you’ve heard of Oprah Winfrey and Harpo Studios? – with lots of ready-to-roll space for a film or TV production.

And a production that isn’t made in NYC or LA might have the unintended side effect of – gasp – not having the everyone-lives-in-NYC-or-LA tunnel vision that so many shows seem to have.

Pittsburgh doesn’t have the ready-to-go space yet, and I wish that infrastructure would happen.  I’ve had an idea where it could happen for years.

There’s a small city adjacent to Pittsburgh called Braddock, an area that was hit hardest when the steel industry collapsed. The mayor of Braddock, John Fetterman, has been on TV and in the New York Times trying to find a new lease on life for Braddock. It’s already gained a reputation as an artists’ community.

Braddock has – and I intend no offense by saying this – a substantial level of decay, and has wide swaths of land where existing buildings could be razed or renovated into a large studio production space.

And then, if I wanted to be really super-crazy, I’d suggest that a program could be set up to help unemployed or challenged young men and women learn trades (like sound, lighting, or production) that could be parlayed into steady work.

Music, television, newspapers, books, and films – all of these media platforms have changed drastically in the last few decades. I think in order for these platforms to survive, the people who create and the people who deliver them will have to explore new methods of making them, and new methods of getting them in front of an audience.

EDITED AUGUST 7, 2012 TO ADD: I was incorrect in saying Pittsburgh does NOT have substantial studio space. According to a CNNMoney article, there’s a studio with 300,000 square foot of space. My apologies.

The friendship dance

The New York Times ran a series of articles last week on the topic of friendship, and one of them has hit close to home.

The article, “Friends of a Certain Age,” talks about some challenges that face those of us who are over 30 and trying to establish new friendships.

Confession: I’ve actually wanted to blog about this topic for a while, but nothing screams “fail” like a blog entry complaining that you have no friends. It’s some comfort to me that others have had the same experience.

I do have several really wonderful, strong friendships with people I’ve known for 20 years or more. They’re more like family to me at this point.

But, like most of my family, these friends live a time zone or two away. Two of my closest friends, who I’ve known for a decade, will be moving away from Chicago at weeks’ end and will not be returning.

We forge our friendship foundations when we’re younger. High school and college years are great incubators for friendships; you’re in an existing community and can make connections. Those intense life events that bond people together – the good, the bad, the lifechanging – are all in plentiful supply in those years, and are fuel for friendships.

Once we reach our thirties and forties, it’s not impossible to make new friends and sustain those relationships, but it definitely takes more work and more precise effort.

And in terms of growing my friendship garden, I have to confess that I don’t have a green thumb. And I take ownership for most of that. In the last 10 years I’ve lived in three different cities and have worked for four different employers. I left all of that behind a year ago to return to college, where I’m surrounded by students that have parents my age.

There are other quirks, too, that probably play a role. For example? I don’t drink. No, I don’t have an addiction issue, and I don’t have a moral objection to it. I just don’t like the taste of it, or the effect (depressed and sleepy) it had on me, and I haven’t had more than a half glass of wine in over a decade. It doesn’t mean I can’t hit happy hour or be at those networking events – but asking for bottled water when everyone else is having a belt is a bit unusual!

And here in Chicago, friendship is often strengthened by neighborhood ties – or to be more blunt, dictated by whether you’re within walking distance. We all fight traffic to and from work – and understandably, few people want to fight it just to hang out with a buddy.

My partner and I knew several wonderful, kind people who lived in LGBT enclaves like Andersonville, Boystown and Rogers Park. We made a choice to live significantly closer to the city and lost many connections as a result. Logically we’re right near the Loop, but to our north side acquaintances, we may as well be in Indiana.

Chicago is also a place where all of us are chasing careers, and that has to be priority numero uno. Few of us have free time during the day, and for many of us, the end of our day can be 9 p.m. or even later. That doesn’t leave much time for socializing.

If I wanted to be brutally honest, I’d also confess that I’m a wary person and though I can be friendly – and very generous and loving to the people I know and trust – I am more cautious in my initial dealings with people. It’s the reporter’s gut, telling me to check my sources and get a better sense of someone before I proceed. [EDITED TO ADD: that might come across as aloofness or unapproachability.]

I’m a pretty unconventional (read: oddball) guy and though that’s been a source of pride and a professional strength, it’s also been a roadblock to building community and a potential professional pothole.

My life has taken an unconventional path – and I have to say, I’m very happy about the journey so far. I’m in a great place and am working towards some really important goals in my life. And I’ll keep working towards building and growing the community that my partner and I have here in Chicago.

But I wish, sometimes, that some of my more established friends were in much closer proximity. That established history makes for a rich experience.

Friendship can be wonderful in its simplicity and strength once it’s been created and forged. But the art of meeting and making friends is not so different from dating – location, chemistry and what you have in common can play a big role in whether you become true friends or distant acquaintances with someone.

If you’ve experienced challenges making friends after 30, or you’ve had some success building your community, please share in the comments! 

The joy of househunting

For the last few weeks, my partner and I have been house hunting. After renting for the last few years, my partner – ever the efficient mathematician – crunched the numbers and decided we would be paying less with a mortgage than we pay now in rent. (This is the same slightly dubious reasoning that led us to give up our Zipcar membership and buy a car we drive, on average, one day a week.)

I love the idea of owning a home. I thought that the process would be fun, or at minimum, a bit of an adventure.

You know what I’ve discovered? I’ve found that if our government really wanted to torment terrorists, spies and criminals at Guantanamo, water boarding is not necessary. They could just send them on a search for real estate instead. It will break them and shatter the stability of their mental health in no time.

Now, before I complain further, let me say this: I’m very, very lucky. My partner and I are healthy. We have saved enough to be thinking about this seriously. We both have decent credit scores. We are in a place where a lot of people ain’t. I am very grateful for that. So grateful, I feel guilty for complaining.

But some parts of the process are just crazy.

Working with a real estate company seems to be the same no matter where you go. They get the most basic information about what you want (bedroom and bathrooms) and then bombard you with emails of the same properties. We seem to get the newest or most inexperienced agent every time, which is NOT who you want to sell you a house in this economy.

We’ve worked with a few people where we explained some of the specific things we wanted…and they just kept sending us listings that were nothing like what we’d been seeking. The search engines many of these companies use are missing a LOT of fields. None seem to have a search for square footage. No listings for finishes/design type.

And the money! It’s supposed to be a recession, and I’ve heard nothing but news about how low home prices have gone, and how much lower home values are now than they were two years ago.

But I think those lower sale prices must have skipped Chicago entirely. I’m astonished at what people want for small, cramped, poorly lit, badly decorated condos that are less than 1500 square feet. It’s insane – half a million dollars in some cases!

Maybe I’m being unrealistic. It’s Chicago, after all.

I’ve been thinking a lot about when my mom and dad bought the house I grew up in. It was in 1965, and the buying price was $15,000. Dad put $500 down and did another few hundred dollars in work inside. It was a great house, with 3 bedrooms and almost a half acre of land. When he sold it last year, it garnered not quite ten times the original cost.

That’s in western Pennsylvania, where housing costs are very low. But in much of the rest of the country, you can’t buy even a small place without spending at least $300,000 these days. And that just seems insane to me.

I’m a city boy, so we’re looking mostly at condos and townhouses. But a little part of me thinks about the home I grew up in, and wonders if we shouldn’t be looking to buy not only the living space, but the land underneath.

I wonder if we are making the right decision in buying a house. From theorists like Professor Richard Florida to money gurus like Suze Orman, I’ve heard over and over that renting, not buying, makes more sense in the long run in this new economy, in these new days.

It’s a lot of money to gamble. And that’s before the mad dash to find the place we love, the place we can live in and call ours.

It’s a financial consideration, perhaps, but it’s also an emotional one. Having a home feels like the top rung on the ladder of security. So do we follow our heads or our hearts? I’m not sure where this will end up.

Why libraries matter

I admit it: I am not objective when it comes to libraries. In my opinion, libraries are awesome. They’re great resources of information and very democratic resources (anyone can access them).

They have provided hours of entertainment (and sometimes, refuge) for me. And I love books and information – learning, reading and growing.

So I found it very sad recently when I heard that the main library in Gary, Indiana is closing. It’s sad on multiple levels.

After all, Gary is an area that’s struggling in a way that’s unparalleled in this country (outside of perhaps Detroit). They’ve lost over 50% of their residents and a huge chunk of available work. For them to lose their main library? Is knocking a man when he’s down.

I can understand why they have to – the money simply isn’t there, and Indiana’s current state government is yanking nearly all remaining funding. And you have to see Gary to understand the level of decay – in some sections of town, it looks positively post-apocalyptic.

But I want to tell you why having a library matters. It’s a part of a community’s identity. It’s a source of pride.

That’s not just empty lecturing. I can tell you, in a very genuine way, that libraries can make a difference. I can say that about the Gary Public Library. It was where I found some incredibly helpful information.

I’ve been doing my family tree research for about a year now. And I’d been researching my grandparents’ lives and tracing their family – their parents (my great grandparents) and their siblings. Between my maternal grandmother and my paternal grandfather, there were 25 siblings, so it’s been a big project!

I’d figured out where most of my gram’s siblings had ended up, and even connected with some of their descendants – my mom’s cousins and their children, from my generation.

But one great-aunt remained mysterious. I knew little about her. My grandmother and mom are both gone, so I couldn’t ask them, and my aunt was helpful, but I still had some gaps in information. None of her information was coming up online.

Online records indicated she was living in California, and I happened to be in California this past winter, so I checked in the local library for her obituary. No luck.

What we did determine, from the obituaries of my great-grandmother and great-grandfather, was that at the time of their deaths, she’d been living in Gary.

So it was decided that on our next trip to Michigan City, we’d stop in Gary. And one rainy, bleary day this past winter, we did.

The library was dark and clearly had seen better days. The staff was incredibly helpful – they’d verified ahead of time that they held the newspaper from 1981 that I’d wanted to check. We went to the Indiana Room – a bit chaotic and disorganized, but filled with information. The appropriate microfilm cartridge was located.

I only had the month, not the day. So I searched an entire month’s film. And there, on the very last day, was my great aunt. She’d gone by her middle name (I’d been looking for Myrtle, but she’d been known as Ann) but it was definitely her.

It may not seem like a big deal, but it was to me. I’d found a huge branch of the family tree less than an hour from where I lived. I learned that great-aunt Ann had 10 children, including a multi-award winning high school football coach in Indiana. I was able to solve the mystery of a few photos in our family photo collection with no names or only nicknames written.

And best of all, I’ve connected with several members of my family and gotten to know them. And that’s a really nice feeling to bring that full circle. I think my mom, my grandma, and especially my great grandparents would be proud.

And of course, none of that would have been possible without the library – a library that is closing at years’ end.

For many of us, libraries have always been there. But in this evolving information age, we can’t assume they still will be.

Don’t take your local library for granted. Support them with your money* or your time. Let your local and state governments know how important they are.

You may not need a library every day. But invest in it and all of the information it holds. You never know when you’ll need it, or what door it will open.

*NOTE: I did donate money to the Gary Library for their help on my project. 

Does achievement have a gender?

Does achievement have a gender? That’s the question that kept nagging at me after I read an obituary of a well known and well respected journalist.

The obituary’s first line read: “Arguably, the best female reporter/writer in the history of Chicago journalism……”  And my first reaction was… female? Why the restriction? Why isn’t she just one of the best reporters?

The paper’s online ombudsman is on Twitter (it was his tweet that brought the obit to my attention) so I Tweeted a quick comment about my reaction. And his response was even more intriguing to me: “Give her the “female” as a badge of honor….one more hurdle to overcome in that era.”

I don’t disagree with him in principle. I know he and the author of the piece are great at their jobs and meant no disrespect. I just wondering if that’s an honor, or a limiting label – then, or now.

Do we still need to measure gender? Or for that matter, any other label? Do we only compare Asians to other Asians? How about LGBT people? Or differently abled people?

I don’t know how objective or important my opinion is on this one – I am a guy, after all, and have never had my gender limit the possibilities of what I could achieve in a job. In my career, I’ve worked almost exclusively for women, and with one Cruella de Vil-esque exception, they were all great managers and great leaders. The women I’ve worked for have had more consensus-based, flexible, results oriented management styles, and they were always more aware of a need for life/work balance.

If I think about it beyond that, however, I’d realize that all of those women reported to male managers or executives. The glass ceiling may be less obvious, but it seems to still be in place.

So….I’m thinking it IS still a matter of importance how we describe people – and how we describe their accomplishments.

Am I being too sensitive? I’m curious to know your thoughts. 

Food carts in Chicago

It’s been a while since I’ve done a Chicago-specific post. I’ll spare you any discussion of the mayoral election or the performance of our sports teams, and talk about a controversy that’s been building for a while – street food carts in Chicago.

What’s the big deal? Well, a lot of people want food carts. Many entrepreneurs and restauranteurs would love to have a food cart.

But just as many people have concerns and objections. They worry about the safety of food prepared on carts, about the competition for space between dueling cart owners, about the mobile kitchens stealing business from existing brick and mortar restaurants.

Carts on Library Mall (near University of Wisconsin) in Madison

And those are all valid concerns, to be sure. Many true “food carts” in the city now are illegal and are cooking food on the premises, which isn’t permitted. That food isn’t regulated, and neither are the people running them. No one is checking whether food is being refrigerated or heated at the appropriate temperatures, which can result in serious health issues.

There are a limited number of regulated food carts in the city right now, but they are featuring food that was prepared in a regulated restaurant or shop and is being sold cold or at room temperature.

I’ve heard lots of pros and cons, but few people have mentioned my old hometown of Madison, Wisconsin when they talk about this issue. They should, because Madison has one of the best organized, best run, and plain yummiest selection of food carts. And somehow, no one has died and people have made money. Imagine!

What Madison does that works well:

Carts are assigned spots. The whole will-someone-poach-my-spot issue never comes into play. (Then again, this is a town that seems to always be in the midst of a dibs war, so who knows if other cart owners would respect someone’s spot?) They’re mainly in public areas near the state capitol and the university.

Carts are generally limited in the hours they sell food. Most of the carts were open during the day and during weekdays. And many of them were within 500 feet of existing restaurants. But they didn’t seem to poach each other’s business. In fact, the concentration of healthy, delicious food brings more people to that area. The only thing carts competed with in Madison – and affected – was fast food. Because who wants to go to stale ol’ Subway if a tasty taco cart or falafel wagon is nearby?

Hey, look: A cart for Illinois residents! (FIB = notorious acronym that Skonnies use to describe people from Illinois.)

There are 40 to 50 carts in the downtown Madison area, and they’re some of the most popular places to go.

But Madison is a quarter of a million people. Could it work in a city of three million plus?

Sure. There would need to be adjustments. Assigning spaces in public areas would be a start, but allowing some carts to be mobile and stop in several areas – as some of the current carts do (hello, cupcake wagon) should be allowed.

Madison is a town of mostly small business owners, and Chicago’s carts should be populated to talented local chefs and bakers making great food with sustainable materials. We shouldn’t have giant Lettuce Entertain You carts all over Chicago. (They can park that one at Navy Pier.)

There would have to be a real effort to regulate carts not just in the Loop but everywhere. And that would require a very multicultural approach to this project, since so many neighborhoods have their own cultural culinary strengths. Neighborhood organizations should be able to decide where carts can sell, so it doesn’t impact their homes, neighborhoods or businesses.

I think the weakest part of this idea is not the carts themselves, but the ability of the city government to inspect and regulate them. They barely sustain the restaurant inspections they’re required to do now, and they’ve shown a lack of respect in the past for new food communities and entrepreneurs (they’ve tossed out months of work in raw food establishments).

I really hope Chicago can pull it together, though. Food carts are a great experience, a great combination of old and new ideas.